Quark Xpress 7

January 1st, 2007 DG, Software, Tech

Quark Rejoins the Race

In a page layout world transformed by Adobe, Quark lost a lot of ground. Drew Turney weighs up Quark’s new look, new approach and new price tag.

Xpress is now in its third incantation since Adobe knocked Quark of its once-unshakable pedestal. It’s had a lot of chances to get it right since then – and has fumbled almost all of them. The company sat still for years in blinkered silence while Adobe streaked further ahead in features, stubbornly continuing to charge three times the cost of InDesign. It continued to ignore users’ wish lists and what’s worse, it did so when its competition was all ears.

But the new version of Xpress costs about $1,700. One installer disc is for Mac and Windows, and the whole Quark package ahs a slick new look. Everything about the new Xpress seems to say ‘trimmed of fat’ and ‘contemporary’. But although the look is turning a new leaf, does the product follow suit?

Collaboration Tools

Xpress 6 introduced some intriguing new features that Quark has been smart enough to build on. Chief among them is the ability to edit a single file or project across a large workforce. Allowing layout artists to synchronise content was a great start, and Xpress 7 amps that philosophy right up. The Synchronise palette now lets you synchronise separate attributes of content such as the box only, the content only, formatting of text only, etc.

But the biggest news in synchronisation is Composition Zones. In a large layout with a lot of departments (advertising, editorial, picture editorial, etc), a designated file manager (such as the art director) can assign areas that are editable by only certain users.

Xpress then produces files from a layout that contains only the content each user should be changing, either within a single project file or saved externally as a file which can be accessed from anywhere on a network. Then, as each user updates their part of the document (their Composition Zone), the original or master copy is updated with their changes, even though another user can be opening or actioning it at the same time.

For years the biggest bugbear with Quark was the fact that Xpress never collected fonts for output, relying on third party flightcheck programs. As if compensating now, Job Jackets and Job Tickets introduce the sort of preflighting you do at the beginning, and they do so far more comprehensively than those old utilities like Magpie ever could. Before you even start a layout, Job Jackets let you set parameters for just about everything – from the colour swatch, font set and maximum number of pages to the press the job will run on.

Job Jacket files can be shared with your bureau or other users working on projects with similar constraints and can be accessed by layout artists at any time to make sure they’re staying within the job parameters. They’re a great idea but terribly complicated and will take a lot of practice. Just reading about Job Jackets in the manual is enough to make your head spin.

Gaining in the Feature Race

Of course, these changes are fantastic if you’re a periodical publisher with dozens of staff, but as there’s only a handful of them in Australia (and they all dumped Xpress for InDesign years ago), Xpress needs more to appeal to the individual user if Quark is to regain a market toehold.

Aside from building on the project-based rather than single layout-based approach (the biggest and best improvement to version 6) most of the new features mean Xpress is catching up to InDesign rather than overtaking it.

It’s incorporated several of the in-application graphics effects such as drop shadows that are now standard thanks to InDesign, but it’s the controls it’s borrowed from Photoshop that are most interesting.

First, you can now place native .psd files rather than having to save them as .tif or .eps. Bizarrely, vector-based graphics such as .ai don’t enjoy the same access into Xpress, but many of the colour and graphic controls you’re used to in Photoshop are now available right inside the application. A new palette lets you turn the Photoshop layers on and off or access layer masks, and the new Picture Effects palette gives you controls you’re already used to such as Gaussian Blur, Emboss, Curves, Color Balance and Brightness.

Expanding in the Right Direction

In any software this comprehensive, we expect plenty of little changes and productivity tweaks, and Xpress doesn’t disappoint in that regard either. Palettes fold into one such as they do in Dreamweaver and you can save a set of palettes you like depending on the functions you use often.

The measurements palette has also been greatly expanded, hiding many more functions than it did before, akin to the Function Bar in Adobe applications. When you roll over it with your mouse a little popup rises. A row of buttons let you select the mode or tool you’ll be using and the interior of the palette changes to give you access to controls for a single function such as frame or clipping control.

There’s also a host of handy tricks like viewing the same file in several different windows so you can act on different parts of the same file without having to scroll forever of jump up and down across pages, a neat alternative to the Go To command.

Compared to the requirements of web validation and standards, Xpress’ web design component was pretty behind the times in early 2004 when Xpress 6 arrived. Now it’s shockingly so, and despite Quark’s claims that you can produce web pages without knowing HTML, any website you produce using Xpress 7 will need so much tweaking in the code you might as well start somewhere else entirely.

Should You Buy It?

Dropping the price around $1,500 was bound to attract serious attention back to Quark again. Like a new media service, nobody knew what to charge for page layout software in 1987 when Xpress 1 appeared, so Quark could write its own ticket. Adobe bought Quark up short and they paid the price.

Although winning back apathetic customers now comfortable with InDesign is a completely different battle, the featureset and value for money of Xpress 7 is levelling the field again. It’s the best value update for Xpress since the program moved from version 3.3 to 4 over ten years ago.

Price and availability
AUD $1795.00 (full version)
AUD $595.00 (upgrade)

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